Piano man always in tune

Updated: 2013-09-10 07:01

By Sun Ye (China Daily)

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Stephan Mohler has unusually large hands.

His right hand can stretch across one-and-a-half piano scales. If he's not careful, a single finger touches multiple keys.

The Swiss' left hand has been made larger by playing a particular chord thousands of times over 35 years, he says.

He not only plays but also tunes and makes pianos - trades he learned under master piano maker Lothar Thomma, who encouraged Mohler to move to China.

The 58-year-old has spent three years in Guangdong's provincial capital Guangzhou, where he's Pearl River Piano's technical director.

Mohler tunes and assembles top-class pianos, and trains others in these trades. He's the only non-Chinese on his team.

He loves music but he also has a passion for language. He starts every day listening to Cantonese radio broadcasts, even though he doesn't understand them.

"I love the rhythm," he says.

"It sets the day off with a spark."

Pearl River Piano Group produces more than 100,000 pianos a year. It's a sprawling maze of a factory Mohler navigates 10 hours every workday.

"Every day I work here, there is a surprise," he says.

He was especially impressed by 28-year-old Zhang Zhengwei, who stood out among his dozen students learning how to produce pianos.

"He made it nearly perfect his first try," Mohler says.

"That's a talent you don't see often."

He recalls first encountering Pearl River Piano Group at a Frankfurt music fair.

"I just had to find out who made the piano," he recalls.

"And I knew right then that Chinese piano is not bad (it's) good."

So, he seized an opportunity to move to the country to make pianos.

"I had a good job but (quit) it for China," he says.

"I knew almost nothing about the country."

He was happy with what he discovered upon arrival.

"I didn't know what the factory was like or the Chinese market, or how great the technicians are," he says.

"When I came, (I thought): 'Wow! I love this.'"

He has since made the eye-catching piano used at the 2010 Asian Games, won the Guangzhou Friendship Award for Foreign Expert and worked on the kind of pianos he had always wanted to.

Now, his team of technicians is hand-making the Kayserburg Piano series.

"In art, there is never the best - we only have top-class," he says.

"Here, we make top-class pianos."

That requires constant tweaking and testing.

Piano man always in tune

"I was most impressed by (his) care and precision," says Xie Ziming, who works alongside Mohler.

"We once tuned from 10 am until late afternoon. I had to remind him to eat. We couldn't work any longer on empty stomachs."

Mohler is proud the Kayserburg series won a blind vote for "excellence" in a contest with four other international brands during a promotional tour in the United States this spring.

He immerses himself in music when he's not working but plays clarinet, rather than piano. He spends breaks practicing the wind instrument in the company's dark exhibition hall.

Mohler listens to traditional Chinese music at home, although he doesn't know the names or composers of the pieces he enjoys.

He loves guqin (Chinese zither) and yangqin (Chinese dulcimer) for their ethereal and sliding tones.

"Chinese music has that eerie out-of-tune yet fully in-tune quality," he says. "I love it."


 Piano man always in tune

Stephan Mohler supervises the work of young technicians at the factory of Pearl River Piano Group. Zou Zhongpin / China Daily

(China Daily USA 09/10/2013 page10)